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Fernando Velho: cidade

Illustration by Govit Morajkar

The depiction of the slum in cinema has become more violent in recent times. Contemporary films on slums are more focussed on creating visual feasts and box office successes for the entertainment industry. It has become less about understanding the structural inequities of poverty that give rise to slums.
Akin to defining poverty, there isn’t even a universally accepted categorization of what constitutes a slum. Films help shape the popular imagination to clearly mark out the slum as an urban underbelly − an arena of darkness. The cinematic slum is a place of gun slinging, drug dealing, sex work and other urban dark arts. In the real world it is simply a home to the marginalized blue collar workers who are essential to keep the city going.
This was not always the case. Post-war filmmakers inspired by Italian neo-realist cinema tried to demystify the slum for their audiences. Children were frequently used by directors like Luis Buñuel in movies like Los Olvidados (1950) to bring home to audiences issues of juvenile delinquency, street crime, and failing reformatories.
Inspired by Buñuel, a new generation of filmmakers like Héctor Babenco in Pixote: a Lei do Mais Fraco (1981) and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1998) similarly focussed on the child protagonists and the inescapable cycle of structural poverty they were caught in. Through film, these filmmakers reached out to a middle-class audience and politicized the condition of the marginalized. They barely focussed on the built form and the architectural features of slums in their movies.
The liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990’s saw the disappearance of the slum from cinema screens altogether. The Indian film industry became more intertwined with multiplexes and the commercial returns they could generate. Formula films more focussed on entertainment were a safer bet for the increasingly large investments finding their way into films.
The influence of globalization and the development of multiplexes in Brazil lead to exactly the opposite of what happened in India. Slums, or favelas as they are called in Brazil, could now be leveraged to create stunning box office success not seen in the history of Brazilian cinema before.
The movie that undoubtedly set this trend was Cidade de Deus (2002) directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. If Héctor Babenco used the street kid Peixote as a means to make a statement about the deprivations that society can heap on its street children, Cidade de Deus does them no such favour. In one of the most intense scenes in recent cinematic history, street kids are shown engaging in extreme and mindless violence on each other. The entire movie is a mix between a thriller and a gangster film and is far removed from the earlier world of Italian neo-realism that influenced previous Latin American filmmakers and their engagement with the slum. It was a smashing global box office success and the new cinematic slum was born.
This was followed by other wildly successful movies like Tropa de Elite (2007) which were even more violent in character. This is a classic Hollywood cops and robbers flick that looks at the world in black and white. Heroic Special Forces Captain Nascimento, played by Wagner Moura, enters the favelas and wipes out drug dealers and gangsters. No prizes for guessing on whose side the audience is meant to be cheering.
The slum may have gone extinct on Indian multiplex screens but it made a brief return to them in the form of Slumdog Millionaire (1998). It is more an orientalized intersection of Bollywood, filth, violence, and eastern social deprivation than a fair depiction of a Mumbai slum. It too used the bodies of children on its way to becoming a global box office success.
The contemporary slum film is more voyeurism and entertainment than serious introspection on urban and social inequalities. As a modern tool of urban cartography, it is failing badly.

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